Deep inside each of us we know that we ought to be good. Perhaps it’s stronger than that, and we want to be good. But we aren’t as good as we’d like to be, and we often disappoint ourselves and perhaps give up trying, and ignore our shortcomings – burying them in a busy and ‘important’ life.
Millions of years of ‘survival of the fittest’ evolution has honed our human nature to make sure that we thrive physically and materially, even if it is at the expense of others. We want a better house, a better car, more money. We want our country to be richer and have a better healthcare system than others. We recognise that there are laws that we must obey, but we will find ways round them if we can if it improves our lot. We might get angry about world situations; the dreadful behaviour of the Taliban, or Trump, or Putin, or global warming, or social injustice; demanding action from governments but perhaps being unwilling to actually do much, if anything ourselves.
In this environment, what is the relevance of and role of religion? And what about God? And do They have anything to do with religion, or us?
Reliable historical texts describe that Jesus brought ‘good news’ to the people of Israel, and that he told his followers to take that good news to all nations. The people he brought the good news to were probably not that different to us, although with less technology and material possessions; they had the same drives and motivations. They felt the same disillusionments. Yet many people were changed by the message he brought, transforming their lives and motivated to take his message to the world.
So what was this ‘good news’ that Jesus brought, and why don’t we hear it today?
Basically, the good news was (and still is) that ‘You can be good, and this is what being good looks like.’
On top of that simple message, he brought us tools and techniques to help us, the primary one being the tool to free us from the ‘badness’ of our past. Using his tools we can look forward to what we can become rather than being dragged back by our past mistakes.
The tool that he offered was repentance; sincere regret and remorse. But repentance alone is clearly not enough and might simply add a feeling of extreme guilt and worthlessness (who would want to subject themselves to that). The ‘magic’ that Jesus brought was, and still is authoritative forgiveness.
Forgiveness only works if it is offered by someone with the authority to forgive; it doesn’t mean a thing if I forgive you for stealing, it needs a judge to do so. In Jesus day the religious leaders recognised that ‘only God can forgive sins’ and so were angry that Jesus did so.
Today, we don’t have the same understanding of God, and perhaps for us it is better to think of ‘infinite love’ or ‘infinite goodness’ instead of the God. But how ever we look at it, the magic of Jesus clearly worked at the time and has continued to work ever since – if we repent and ask Jesus to forgive us then he does.
As I wrote in my book “Christianity – why bother?”:
“To live a rich and satisfying life in the future we have to accept that we made mistakes in the past. We have to want to change for the better. We have to want to wipe the slate clean and start again. And we do that by accepting God’s forgiveness.
It’s about accepting God’s unconditional love, and then working with Him to become who we are meant to be. And it starts with a decision to submit leadership of our life to Christ.
And this is freedom.
Freedom from the guilt of past sins.
Freedom to love God.
Freedom to love one another.
Freedom to stop sinning and to do what is right without worrying about the future.
Freedom to trust Jesus when he tells us that he has come to bring life in abundance.
Freedom from religious ritual.
In essence, that is the Good News of Christianity; that is the Gospel.”
And what is the role of religion? Well religion should help us find this truth. Religion should help us to understand who and what God is, and to help us see what ‘good’ looks like. Unfortunately, much religion today seems to want to show what is good by living the opposite – a perverse sort of reverse psychology. Nevertheless, there are many good and solid leaders and grass roots members of religions who are simply trying to tread a good path, trying to live graciously with one another. Being part of such a community can be a great help and encouragement, and can bring companionship on our journey. Spending an hour or two of ‘spiritual’ reflection once a week helps us maintain focus and direction. So yes, there is still a role for religion.